Folding Chairs – "Glastonbury type"
Chairs with an x-frame and a back were known in the early Middle Ages (Fig. 1). In this particular design, the back is oriented transverse to the x-frame.
This type reappears in Italy by the mid-15th century. I can find no examples of them from the 12th - 14th centuries. Possibly the design was rediscovered in the course of research into Classical models, all the rage in Italy at that time.
Figure 1: Ivory panel, Byzantine or South Italian, 11th century (V&A)
A Venetian MS illumination shows Pharaoh sitting in such a chair (Figure 2), with straight legs and a straight back; there is a suggestion of some pointed, Gothic-style decoration at the top of the chair back.
Figure 2: Pharaoh, from a Bible of 1455-61
Biblioteca Estense, Modena
A similar chair from the mid-15th century exists in a museum in Turin (Figure 3). This chair shows a slightly different arm shape and a clearly Renaissance pediment on the back, which is sloped; there is no trace of Gothic. The chair assembles in such a way that all the parts – legs, arms, back rails, and seat rails – are parallel, making construction and assembly very simple.
Figure 3: Mid-15th century chair in Museo Civico, Turin
A very similar chair appears at the edge of a Flemish painting from the 1480s by Memling. Only part of the chair is visible, but it is clearly of this type.
Figure 4: Detail from Bathsheba at the Bath, Hans Memling, 1480s. Stuttgart Museum.
Another version of this chair is in the V&A in London (Figure 5). The museum claims a 16th century date for this chair, although Chinnery (1979) attributes it to the early 17th century. Although often referred to as "folding" chairs, these chairs do not actually fold, they dismantle. The purpose behind the peculiar shape of the arms is not clear.
Figure 5: A late 16th or early 17th century chair in the V&A Museum.
The famous "Glastonbury chair" is another surviving example of this type (Figure 6). This chair was apparently made shortly before the dissolution of Glastonbury Abbey in 1539. Carving on the arms and back are consistent with English work of this period, transitional from Gothic to Renaissance. The construction of this chair, particularly the relation of the seat rails, back rails, and arms, is slightly different from the previous example; the back is narrower than the seat, with the result that the arms are not parallel to the rest of the structure. This necessitates some extra work to construct the chair. This chair was extensively restored in the early 19th century, and it is not clear if the present arrangement is consistent with the original.
Figure 6. Drawing of chair in the Bishop's Palace at Wells, by Henry Shaw, Specimens of Ancient Furniture, 1836.
Another English example, the "Prior's Chair" formerly in Southwick Priory, Hampshire. This one is constructed like all the other examples - the seat is narrower than the back, so the arms can be assembled parallel to all the other pieces.
Figure 7. Anonymous engraving of Southwick Priory chair.
Although these chairs are comfortable and useful, they do not appear to have been widely popular. Documentary and archaeological evidence suggests that foldstools and other backless types were far more widely used.
Albion Works makes a chair in this style: http://www.albionworks.com/seatfurniture.html
Questions or comments? E-mail me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Figure 1: "Ceremonial and Commemorative Chairs of Great Britain," Clare Graham, Victoria & Albert Museum pub. 1994, figure 52.
Figure 2: "The Italian Renaissance Interior, 1400-1600," Peter Thornton, 1991, figure 202.
Figure 3: "Möbel Europas, Romanik-Gotik," Franz Windisch-Graetz, pub. Klinkhardt & Biermann, 1982; fig. 203.
Figure 4: http://www.kfki.hu/~arthp/art/m/memling/3mature2/25nobath.jpg
Figure 5: "Oak Furniture, the British Tradition," Victor Chinnery, pub. Antique Collector's Club, 1979. Fig. 3.3.
Figure 6: Graham, op.cit., figure 32.
Figure 7. Ibid, fig. 33.
Page created by Tim Bray of Albion Works. Updated 3/15/2003